USC kicks off its season vs. Western Michigan on Sept. 2, but fans can catch a glimpse of the Trojans this week at Pac-12 Media Days in Hollywood, Calif.
Coach Clay Helton, quarterback Sam Darnold and linebacker Cam Smith will represent the national-title contenders at the podium Thursday. He are the biggest storylines — and the potential media questions — heading into Pac-12 Media Days:
Haven’t we seen this movie before?
Yes, the Trojans are one of the favorites to make the 2018 College Football Playoff. Yes, they are the prohibitive favorite to win the Pac-12. Yes, they have Darnold, the preseason Heisman Trophy front-runner. But the Trojans are a powerhouse that typically enters a season with a high ranking and higher expectations. So what makes this year different? The reality is that USC hasn’t won a conference title since 2008. This past Rose Bowl was the Trojans’ first New Year’s bowl game in that same time frame. Potential All-Americans abound on the roster (again, seemingly like every other year), but will they be able to put it all together and reach their always-lofty expectations?
Is Deontay Burnett ready for the No. 1 WR role?
Losing JuJu Smith-Schuster will no doubt hurt. He was a big-play receiver in every sense of the word. But the Trojans are still loaded with weapons for Darnold, led by junior receiver Deontay Burnett. The 6-foot Burnett was second on the team last season in receptions (56) and TD grabs (7). And his best game last season was the last time we saw him, hauling in 13 catches for 164 yards and 3 scores in the Rose Bowl. He showed in that game what he can do when he gets targets. As the undisputed top option in the passing game, he’s in a great position to produce at a very high level in 2017.
Don’t forget about Ronald Jones II
Lost in the hype of Darnold and the 2016 midseason turnaround, people tend to forget that the Trojans also have a very good player toting the rock. Ronald Jones II had almost 1,100 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns last season while averaging more than 6 yards per carry. Like the rest of the team, he saved his best play for the end of the year, averaging 148 yards per game in the last five games of the regular season. He’s shifty, he’s tough to tackle and he has speed to break big plays. Load up on trying to stop Darnold if you dare, but Jones will hurt you. If you wanted a longshot Heisman candidate, who given the right situation could actually win it, Jones is that guy. He’s not even on sportsbook William Hill’s most recent odds to win the award, but if he plays like he did at the end of last season, he’ll be there soon enough.
How good can the defense really be?
The short answer is very good. The unit ranked 38th last year in scoring defense, and that includes the 52 Alabama put up on the Trojans in the season opener. USC held Washington to only 13 points in Seattle and brings back seven defensive starters. The group will be led by star linebackers Smith and Porter Gustin along with potential All-American cornerback Iman Marshall. If the D-line can find an adequate run-stuffer to replace Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, the Trojans could line up one of the better defensive units in the conference.
How long can Clay Helton keep this up?
He inherited a team of players largely recruited by Steve Sarkisian, but Helton has done a good job putting his own brand on the program and maintaining success. The Trojans’ 2017 recruiting class ranked fourth in the nation per the 247Sports composite rankings, a class highlighted by 5-stars recruits Stephen Carr (RB) and Joseph Lewis (WR). For 2018, the Trojans have already secured commitments from the nation’s top inside linebacker, Palaie Gaoteote, and have another seven 4-star recruits committed, as well. If USC delivers on its hype this season, it will once again become the undisputed preeminent program on the West Coast, and a powerhouse on the national scene.